Monthly Archives: March 2011

Lyric Poetry

Lyrics can be a kid’s key to poetry, to interpretation, even to learning that literature can be an emotional experience as well as a mental exercise. Whenever I teach literary interpretation, I start with lyrics. (Then, I slowly reveal to the students that they’ve been hoodwinked into studying poetry… by the time they realize it, they’re too hooked to resist.) For me, music is life. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my love of literature began at age 4 when I started incessantly asking my parents “What is this song about?” Every time a new track popped up on the radio or CD player, I wanted to be clued in to the secret. Sometimes the explanation was easy, other times my parents would talk circles around themselves, exploring possibilities while I pondered them. I try to bring this lifelong love into the classroom whenever possible, whether it’s comparing The Bravery‘s “Believe” to Odysseus’ point of view in Homer’s Odyssey or decoding Miller’s Death of a Salesman with the help of “New Low” by Middle Class Rut. It’s really cool to take what’s on the radio and say, “Hey, it’s practically like this song was written as part of the soundtrack for this unit!” But sometimes, especially if one wants to teach the mysterious art of literary analysis, it’s neccessary to find a fresh song. And teachers, I’ve got just the guy to help you out.

American folksinger David Wilcox is a singer/songwriter who sang/songwrote his way deep into my heart back in those days when I was first figuring out that songs could be “about” something. Wilcox albums were always on repeat in the house–my dad was already his biggest fan back in the 90’s. I grew up with Wilcox’s warm, wise voice echoing around me, and I still look to his music when I’m seeking solace, philosophy, or some key to my own emotions. One of many awesome things about David Wilcox’s music is that his lyrics are masterfully crafted. He creates songs that always contain some element of mystery, irony, or prophecy. This makes his work especially rewarding to people who view themselves as thinkers, questioners, and poetic souls. Luckily for me and my career, his music is also the ultimate literary analysis canvas. Because the lyrics are so multilayered, they offer a world of possibilities to curious students who are learning the satisfaction of peeling back layers, making sense of smudges, and defending an interpretation of a literary work. Listening to the music in class has always been very successful for me as well–it’s so different from the mainstream that students just sort of stop and cock their heads, truly listening.

If you’re looking to dive into some potentially analysis-ready Wilcox lyrics, I strongly suggest starting with a trio of early albums: Big Horizon, How Did You Find Me Here, and Home Again.  While you’ll likely find your own perfect piece, I can recommend “Jamie’s Secret” (from How Did You Find Me Here) as a track that my students have really responded to, on visceral as well as intellectual levels. If you like what you hear, or you’re just curious about more recent work, I recommend progressing to Turning Point, Underneath, and Vista.  You can listen to tracks, find lyrics, and even read blog posts on David Wilcox’s website.

Having seen him in concert, I can attest to the fact that this troubadour has a very gentle, smart, and thoughtful presence. Try letting his presence into your classroom through music and lyrics–you might be surprised at your students’ reactions. With Wilcox’s spell, literary analysis warms into something cozy, enigmatic, and profound.

Thanks, David.

Teaching through the Storm: Greetings from Wisconsin

As all of America knows by now, a political storm has been brewing in Wisconsin over budget alterations and collective bargaining rights for workers in the public sector. To put it mildly, this has influenced the morale in my work environment. For the past month, I’ve felt it creeping, seeping, crashing, flooding, and cascading in from every direction: disillusionment. People are uneasy–conflicting political passions, fears of lost jobs and lost wages, uncertainty about the future of public education in general, and a confusing mixture of supportive/scathing commentary from spectators all contribute to the tumult evident in most public school teachers’ eyes nowadays. And it’s been in my eyes, too. I hate the heavy haze that has overtaken an institution that is normally so full of life, ideas, and energy.

Since I’ve already sent many words to many people expressing my political views, I’ve come here to disclose my personal views… the things that transend red, white, and blue and get to the core of the matter. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a young professional, and do not yet possess the same range of experience that some of my colleagues do. For that reason, I’m not going to pretend to know the history of union/anti-union movements in this or any other country. I’m going to talk about what I do have expertise in–what I know within my heart.

I do know that young teachers deserve jobs, mid-career teachers deserve stability, and veteran teachers deserve the inspiration to teach until they need to walk with a cane… maybe even beyond. Teachers are an integral, foundational part of our society. Still, we find ourselves suddenly in the center of a negative energy maelstrom. It’s next to impossible not to get sucked in.

In this and other emotionally trying times, it can be hard to come to work with the same zest that usually comes naturally while teaching. Still, I have to say that my students have been the ones helping me weather the storm. This past week in particular, I have been focusing on how bright and laughter-filled my teaching days really are.  No matter what the bureaucracy is doing, no matter how unattractive my career becomes, I have to say that the essence of teaching–that ancient tradition of learners gathering to meet with a learned mentor–transcends all that.  I’m having trouble articulating it accurately, but my guess is that those of you who teach have an idea of what I mean.  It should be, and often is, a joyful profession. I think about the way I feel when I walk into school and I see my students give me a respectful, smiling nod. I think about the students who pop their heads in the door to wave a completed assignment at me with a goofy grin. I think about the support of my colleagues who will stop to listen and trade stories after school as I walk in and shake my head. Teaching has made me part of an extended family that includes my college cohort, students both past and present, the sisterhood-like department that I am privileged to work within, and my fellow educators everywhere. You can’t put a price on that.

I can’t pay my bills on smiles and fullfillment–that much is certainly clear. Despite that, though, I’m stubbornly proclaiming that it’s impossible for this or any other governmental initiative to disenchant me out of the job that I was called to do. I’m here to stay, and I hope that my Wisconsin teaching family can hang on with me, brave the storm, and cruise into work proudly every day. I pray that the winds will change and that teaching will become a fairly compensated, healthy career choice for aspiring and current educators. In the meantime, it may help to reflect on the things that we do have–the joy of teaching young people, the opportunity to change lives, and a spirit fueled by love of discovery. We need to cherish and protect that. Let’s hold each other up. We are still a strong, intelligent group of people who have the power to affect positive change. Besides, we live here in Wisconsin… bring on the blizzard. We’re not going anywhere.

I wrote the following for NCTE’s “Then and Now” project. You can read it (and other teacher stories!) by clicking here, or by reading the italics below.  It seems a fitting note on which to end this post:

I’ll never forget the wave of certainty that washed over me in an urban classroom, packed wall to wall with eighth graders, on September 16th, 2008. That was it. I knew I was a teacher. From that first day of student teaching, I felt a joy that motivated me—the joy of hearing students read their writing in their own voices, of seeing them debate and uphold new ideas. I witnessed, with captivation, emerging power in my students to impact their communities and become incredible scholars. Since then, I’ve learned thousands of things about effective practices, classroom management, curriculum design, and assessment. I’ve changed to respond to different schools, students, and initiatives. Looking to the future, I know my career will be an evolution. But even after all the changes, the joy stays consistent. That unchanging facet of teaching is the thread holding the shifting world of my career together.